“Coira MacDuff, stop bein’ so restless and let Zara read the cards for ye.” Effie MacKeefe rubbed her very pregnant belly, sitting at a table at the Horn and Hoof as they waited for the wedding to begin.
“Effie,” said Coira, wringing her hands together as she paced the floor. “I’m no’ sure I want to do this after all.”
“I’m yer older sister, and I say that ye need to relax. Ye always worry too much.”
“That’s right. Sit, Child,” said the old, English, gypsy woman, Zara, nodding toward the bench. She shuffled her oversized cards and placed the deck on the table. “It’s just for fun while we wait for your betrothed to show up. If he ever does.”
“That’s what I mean,” said Coira, feeling sick to her stomach. She glanced back at the tavern door. It was late. Nightfall would be here soon. Hopefully, her betrothed wouldn’t show so she wouldn’t have to marry him after all. That would solve all her problems. Coira seated herself on the wooden bench next to her sister, thinking that perhaps she’d head back home without having to make any vows after all.
“Cut the cards,” said Zara with a slight nod. The small bells on the edges of her headscarf tinkled with every move she made. A stray curl of grey hair peeked out, resting above one eye.
Coira did as told, not even paying attention to what she was doing. “Effie, ye’re the strong one, no’ me. We both ken it. I canna marry an Englishman who is naught but a stranger to me.”
“It’s to maintain alliances with the Sassenachs over the border.” Effie’s husband, Aidan, told her, walking up with his two good friends, Ian and Onyx at his side. The three of them had grown up together, and danger was something they craved. They had done so many crazy things that they were referred to as the MadMen MacKeefe.
They all had smiles on their faces and tankards of old Callum MacKeefe’s Mountain Magic in their hands. Callum, the grandfather of Chieftain Storm MacKeefe, brewed the most potent whisky in all of Scotland. He was older than dirt but didn’t let that slow him down. Callum owned the Horn and Hoof. Since Storm married an Englishwoman, the tavern was a place where Highlanders, Lowlanders, and the English could meet without a fight.
“That’s right,” said Ian. “The MacKeefe Clan, as well as Clan MacDuff, will be aligned with Lord Lance de Selby because of ye, Coira. It will make the borders safer for our wives and bairns.”
Kyla, Ian’s wife and also Aidan’s sister joined them, overhearing their conversation. “I feel safe just bein’ around ye, Ian.” She wrapped her arms around his waist and kissed him on the lips. Coira had been at their wedding and liked the fact that lifelong friends had turned into lovers.
“Who’s watchin’ the bairns, Kyla?” asked Ian with concern in his voice.
“Lady Lovelle wanted to hold baby Grant since she is excited about bein’ bairned again,” said Kyla, speaking about their one-year-old baby boy and the fact that Lovelle was pregnant. “Her son, Charles, is watchin’ Finn and Quinn.” Kyla waggled her fingers at their three-year-old twin boys across the room.
“Lovelle’s holdin’ the bairn?” Onyx’s head snapped around, and he stretched his neck. “I had better go help her.”
As he started away, Kyla looked up at Ian and shook her head. “Ian, dinna let Dagger touch the bairn,” she said, using the name Onyx’s close friends called him. He will throw the laddie into the air like he’s tossin’ a caber, just like he did with his children, Creighton and Davina, when they were bairns.”
“Och, ye’re right,” said Ian. “Let’s go stop him.” He headed away with his arm around Kyla.
“Mayhap I can collect bets on how high Dagger is goin’ to throw the bairn.” Aidan chuckled and hurried after them to get in on the action.
“Thank guidness they all left,” said Effie, still rubbing her stomach. “Now, let’s get back to the cards, Coira.”
“Choose a card,” Zara told Coira, fanning out the cards face down.
“I – I dinna ken which one to choose.” Coira had never been any good at making decisions. She stared at the cards, feeling anxiety course through her.
“Pick one, Coira,” scoffed Effie. “If ye take any longer, I’m goin’ to birth this bairn before ye even decide.”
“But – what if I choose the wrong one?” asked Coira, feeling her rapidly beating heart pounding in her chest. She didn’t want to do the wrong thing. “And what if Lord Lance de Selby is the wrong husband for me? I dinna even ken him. Effie, are ye sure this is helpin’ the clans and that I shouldna have waited and married a Scot instead?”
“Waited?” Effie blew a puff of air from her mouth and pushed a red lock of hair behind her ear. “Coira, the rest of us have many bairns already. Ye are well past marryin’ age, so I think it’s about time ye wed.”
“I am only nine and ten summers,” said Coira in her defense.
“Ye ken that lassies normally are married and have several bairns before they are yer age. Now, dinna fret about it,” said Effie. “Ye told me ye wanted to help the clan and this is the best way to do it. Yer brave action is goin’ to bring about a powerful alliance.”
True, Coira did say she wanted to help, feeling very appreciative of the fact that Effie, as well as Aidan, had saved her life six years ago. Thoughts of that dark time when she and Effie were prisoners of the English at Liddel Castle haunted her still. Because their grandmother, Isabel MacDuff, went against her husband, John Comyn, and crowned Robert the Bruce as King of Scotland, it seemed the women in their family were cursed to suffer in some way or another. It was the given right for a MacDuff to crown the Scottish kings. But because of it, her grandmother had been the first MacDuff woman to ever hang in a cage. Hopefully, Effie and Coira had been the last.
“Give me your hand, Child,” said Zara, reaching out and taking Coira’s hand in hers.
“What are ye doin’?” Coira pulled out of her grasp. Since she and Effie had been raised with gypsies, she should have seen this coming.
“I’m going to read your palm.” Zara slid the candle across the table, bringing it closer for more light.
Coira didn’t want her palm read. With her luck, she would have a short lifeline. Nay, she didn’t need to know. Choosing a card was the lesser of two evils right now, so that is what she’d do. “I think this card will be fine.” Blindly, she reached out and slid a card across the table to Zara. “I’ll go get some ale now. I’m parched.”
She got up off the bench, but Effie reached out and grabbed her arm, not letting her walk away. “Let Zara read yer fortune first.”
“I dinna ken if I believe in the cards, Effie,” said Coira shyly. She didn’t want to know anything that might be bad, especially if it pertained to her future.
“Dinna believe?” asked Effie with a chuckle. “Coira, ye ken more than anyone that Zara was correct in predictin’ the gender of both my bairns, Elspeth and Arabella.”
“That’s right,” said Zara. “I said she’d have two girls, and she did. And the one she is carrying now is a boy.”
“Aidan will be so happy.” Effie smiled from ear to ear. “He has been wantin’ a son so he can teach him how to toss the caber someday.”
“That’s just a coincidence that her predictions came true,” stated Coira.
“Was it?” Zara sniffed and raised her nose in the air, taking Coira’s comment as an insult. “And was it a coincidence when I predicted that Ian and Kyla would have twins? I have been reading the cards ever since Storm MacKeefe and Wren first met. Actually, ever since I was once a handmaid to Wren many years ago. Everything I told Storm and Wren came true, so do not question my ways.”
“Coira, how can ye no’ believe in the ways of the gypsies?” asked Effie. “We were raised with gypsies! And ye even helped Kyla try to see the man she was to marry in the fire on Samhain while ye two threw chestnuts into the flames to see if they would pop. Why are ye actin’ this way?”
“Aye, I did do that,” Coira agreed. “I suppose, I’m only nervous because I’m gettin’ married.” Coira’s eyes roamed once more to the door.
“Sit down and let me finish,” snapped Zara.
Coira didn’t like confrontation, nor did she want to disappoint anyone. When Effie nodded, she begrudgingly took a seat.
“That’s better,” said the old gypsy reaching for the card. “Now, let’s see which card you chose.” She turned over the card and gasped. “The blue rose,” she said no louder than a whisper. A dark shadow crossed her face.
“What’s the matter?” asked Effie. “What does the card mean?”
Coira looked down to see a card that looked different than the rest of the cards in the deck. Instead of the usual emperor or magician, she saw a card that depicted no people at all. It was a tangled vine with sharp thorns. And at the top of the vine was a beautiful, blue rose.
Zara mumbled and shook her head. “I haven’t ever seen this card come up before. It is very rare, indeed.”
Coira’s stomach clenched. She didn’t want to know what it meant. “I think I need that ale now.” Looking around the room, she tried to get the attention of a server, but the tavern was too crowded, and no one responded.
“Dinna ye want to ken what the blue rose means?” asked Effie.
“Nay. No’ really,” Coira answered, picking invisible lint from her sleeve. She was so upset that Zara had gasped that she couldn’t even look at the card anymore. It had to mean something terrible. She should never have agreed to this at all.
“I’ll tell you anyway.” Zara held up the card in front of Coira. “It means that when the rare blue rose blooms, enemies will turn to lovers.”
“It does?” asked Effie. “Well, that’s no’ so bad, Coira. It just means ye and yer husband-to-be will someday fall in love. After all, he is English, and ye are a Scot, and our countries have been enemies for a long time now.”
“Effie, it doesna mean that,” said Coira in a soft voice. “After all . . . he’s no’ even comin’.” Coira pushed up from the table, feeling sad to have been rejected. But at the same time, she was relieved that she wouldn’t have to marry the stranger after all. Before she could walk away, the door to the tavern banged open, and a knight dressed in chain mail and a ripped tunic with lots of dirt on his clothes stomped into the room. He held a sword in his hand.
Instantly, the MadMen MacKeefe, Onyx, Aidan, and Ian, drew their swords, bounding across the room, knocking over a bench in the process. They met the man at the door with the tips of their blades resting under his chin.
“Put down the sword, Sassenach,” Aidan warned him in a gruff voice. Aidan’s pet squirrel chattered and scolded him from one of the ceiling beams.
Rowdy soldiers that followed him into the tavern joined the knight. When they saw what was going on, they drew their swords as well. Instantly, more Scots with weapons surrounded them.
“Boys, I think you have the wrong impression,” said the stranger with a chuckle. “We’re not here to make trouble, nor are we here to fight you.”
“Then why are ye here?” asked Ian, holding his sword steady. Ian’s wolfhound growled lowly from behind him.
“Why, I’m here for the wedding, of course,” said the man, flashing a quick smile that disappeared as the Scots moved in closer.
“Who invited ye?” spat Onyx.
“You did. All of you,” said the man, glancing over to Coira. She was the only one wearing a veil with a crown of flowers around her head. “Ah, I am guessing you are the bride,” he said to Coira.
“I – I am the bride,” she admitted, startled that the man had spoken to her. She could barely answer him since she felt so scared. The soldier was a fierce, big man that looked like he’d just come from the battlefield. She could swear she smelled the sweat from the soldiers all the way across the room.
“Who are ye?” asked Effie, standing up and waddling closer to Coira, letting her pregnant belly lead the way. She was more like a mother to Coira than a sister since their mother died birthing Coira. Aye, Effie always wanted to protect her.
“I thought someone here would realize who I am,” said the man, lowering his weapon and glancing around the room. “I am Sir Lance de Selby. I am here to make an alliance by marrying a woman named Coira MacDuff.”